Session No. 20
Course Title: Business Crisis and Continuity Management
Session 20: Crisis Communication II
Time: 1.5 hrs
20.1Discuss and compare the recommendations of the “experts” in response to the case study:
Media Policy – What Media Policy?
20.2State the essential elements of management communication and explain the importance
of each element in a crisis communication context.
20.3Explain the role of the media in crisis communication, and considerations for effectively
dealing with the media and the public during a crisis.
20.4 Explain the concept of strategic ambiguity in crisis communication and its possible
appropriate and inappropriate application to crisis situations.
20.5 Discuss the BurgerMax Case study in the context of Crisis Management and Crisis
This session starts with a class discussion of the students’ responses to the case study: Media
Policy – What Media Policy? and a comparison with the responses of the “experts.” The
elements of effective communication as included in Barton’s book are then presented for
discussion, followed by a presentation and discussion of the role of the media in crisis
communication and considerations for effectively dealing with the media and the public during a
crisis. The concept of strategic ambiguity as applied in three case studies, as contrasted with the
rules and guidelines for crisis communication presented in session 19 is then presented. The
session concludes with the Crisis Communication Management case study: The BurgerMax Case
– A study in failing to protect and enhance corporate trust and in prolonging the agony of
victims; which is based in part on the actual Jack in the Box case described in the discussion of
strategic ambiguity. The BurgerMax case is available on the Lukaszewski www.e911.com Web
site ands is assigned as student reading for this session. The details of the case study and the
accompanying details are not included in the session remarks since they are readily available in
the case study.
20 - 1
Lukaszewski, James. The Burger Max Case. (2009). Retrieved March 10, 2009 at:
Sonnefeld, Sandy. Media Policy – What Media Policy? Harvard Business Review on Crisis
Management. (1995) Harvard Business School Press. Boston, MA. pp 123 - 142.
Barnes, Robert. Court Allows Suit Against 'Light' Cigarette Makers
Companies Face Huge Liabilities Over Marketing Washington Post. December 16, 2008. p.
Barton, Laurence. 1993. Crisis in Organizations: Managing and Communicating in the Heat of
Chaos. Cincinnati, OH: South-Western Publishing Co. Pages 121 - 149.
Clearing a Legal Haze: The Supreme Court stops Big Tobacco from blocking lawsuits over
deceptive advertising. Washington Post Editorial. December 16, 2008. p. A18
Dyer, Samuel C. 1995. Getting People into the Crisis Communication Plan. Public Relations
Quarterly. Vol. 40, No. 3. Pages 38–41.
Lerbinger, Otto. 1997. The Crisis Manager – Facing Risk and Responsibility. Mahwah, NJ:
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Pages 31–51.
Lukaszewski, James E. 1997. Establishing Individual and Corporate Crisis Communication
Standards: The Principles and Protocols. Public Relations Quarterly. Vol. 42, No. 3. Pages 7–14.
Lukaszewski, James. The Burger Max Case. (2009). Retrieved March 10, 2009 at:
Mallozzi, Cos. 1994. Facing the Danger Zone in Crisis Communications. Risk Management [on-
line]. Vol. 41, No. 1. Start page 34. Electronic version 5 pages.
Sonnefeld, Sandy. Media Policy – What Media Policy? Harvard Business Review on Crisis
Management. (1995) Harvard Business School Press. Boston, MA. pp 123 - 142.
Sellnow, T.L., and Ulmer, R.R. 1995. Ambiguous Argument as Advocacy in Organizational
Crisis Communication. Argumentation and Advocacy [on-line]. Vol. 31, No. 3. Start page 138.
River Falls. Electronic version 9 pages.
20 - 2
Sellnow, T.L., and Ulmer, R.R. 1997. Strategic Ambiguity and the Ethic of Significant Choice in
the Tobacco Industry’s Crisis Communication. Communication Studies [on-line]. Vol. 48, No. 3.
Start page 215. West Lafayette. Electronic version 17 pages.
Taylor, Bob. 1996. “Crisis!” Business and Economic Review [on-line]. Vol. 43, No. 1.
Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina. Start page 12. Electronic version 5 pages.
Traverso, Debra K. 1992. Opening a Credible Dialogue with Your Community. The Public
Relations Journal. Vol. 48, No. 8. Start page 32. New York. Electronic form 3 pages.
Tyler, Lisa. 1997. Liability Means Never Being Able to Say You’re Sorry. Management
Communication Quarterly [on-line]. Vol. 11, No. 1. Start page 51. Thousand Oaks. Electronic
version 9 pages.
Power Point slides are provided for the Instructor’s use if desired.
Objective 20.1: Discuss and compare the recommendations of the “experts” in response to
the case study: Media Policy – What Media Policy?
Possible discussion questions are provided.
I. What the experts had to say.
A. Mike Woods.
1. Take the call, but not answer questions about the bombing. Have Janet act as
the spokesperson for questions related to the bombing.
2. Research the charities supported by Naturewise and the other companies that
contribute to Naturewise.
3. Research CHICARE.
4. Only issue a press statement if there are multiple media inquiries.
5. Stand up to the reporting local media and demand a retraction.
B. John Purser.
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1. Major lessons learned.
a. Top level management must be active participants in the
b. Every company needs a crisis communication plan that kicks in
c. A crisis communication plan must include established channels of
internal and external communication.
2. Dana must take charge, define a strategy and act as the spokesperson.
3. Dana should make a statement deploring the incident and assuming
responsibility for the perceived failure of Narturewise to thoroughly investigate ands
control its charitable contributions policy and process.
4. Naturewise should prepare a written statement for the media.
5. Dana should provide a written explanation for distribution to all Naturwise
employees and keep them updated as the crisis unfolds and is resolved.
6. Naturewise should have a fully distributed and understood policy to guide
employees that are contacted by the media.
7. When the crisis has passed, Dana should fire Bob and Marc for their
C. Stephen Greyser
1. Dana should take the call and set up a follow on interview after a sufficient
amount of time for her to research the situation and develop a strategy. During
a. Put Natutrewise’s policy of corporate giving in perspective and
emphasize that it is the right thing to do.
b. Admit giving the donation to CHICARE and the rationale for selecting
CHICARE while also stating that Naturewise should have done
job checking on Chicare.
c. Decry the bombing.
2. Focus on providing relevant information to Naturewise’s stakeholders
including customers, investors and employees.
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D. Anne Reynolds Ward.
1. Present the facts to the public as soon as possible.
2. Defend her company by presenting the facts in a simple and straight forward
way to the Chicago newspaper.
3. Immediately denounce the bombing, state that Naturewise would never
condone violence and state that Naturewise will do everything possible to avoid
similar mistakes in the future.
4. Best case: Dana responds to the call with the facts and presents a credible case
for Naturewise as a responsible and innovative company with great products and
strong community ties.
5. Worst case: Dana panics and is not responsive to the media who will in turn
seek other sources for their reporting of the incident.
E. Madge Kaplan
1. Dana should take the call and set up a press conference for the afternoon.
2. To get out in front of the story, Dana should pass the word of the press
conference as widely as possible to the media.
3. At the press conference, Dana should deny any prior knowledge of
CHICARE funding TermRights, admit that Naturewise should have done a better
job screening their donations and make a commitment to resolve the problem with
screening in the future.
4. After the crisis has passed, Dana needs to make sure that Naturewise has an
adequate media policy.
Possible Discussion Questions:
Do you agree or disagree with what the experts recommend?
How do the experts’ recommendations compare with those from your group?
Do the experts’ recommendations follow the Crisis Communication questions, activities,
principles, goals, priorities and principles and guidelines discussed in the previous session?
Should Dana admit that Naturewise was remiss in not fully investigating the charitable
contribution distributions followed by CHICARE?
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Should Dana fire Bob and Marc for their “incompetence”?
What type of guidance should be included in Naturewise’s Crisis Communication policy and
Objective 20.2: State the essential elements of management communication and explain
the importance of each element in a crisis communication context.
Present the material by means of lecture and discussion as necessary.
II. Communication as a strategy.
A. Effective communication is necessary to establish, enhance, protect, and restore
an organization’s reputation.
B. “If there is one key lesson crisis management experts have learned over the years,
it is that facts alone do not win arguments, perceptions do.1”
1. Consequently, in order to communicate effectively, both in times of normal
operations and in crises, organizations must adequately consider the perceptions
of their constituents (internal, external, and the media) and structure their
communication strategy and actions accordingly.
2. Barton lays out a series of six building blocks (elements) that form the basis of an
effective communications strategy.
III. Building blocks of a communication strategy (Power Point slide 20 – 2)2:
1. Identify relevant audiences before a crisis and design crisis communication
plans specific to those audiences.
2. Communicating with these audiences is not just a during- and post-crisis
requirement. Communication in times of routine operations is necessary to
establish and maintain a positive reputation. (Remember principle 6 from the
Weber McGinn, Inc., “Twelve Principles of Crisis Leadership”: To emerge
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from a crisis with its business base and reputation intact, an organization
must respond in a manner that is 100% consistent with its image.)
3. To conduct an audience analysis, Barton recommends a series of questions:
a. Where are these audiences located?
b. Can you reach them by calling a meeting of interested parties in your
company auditorium, or will you use the mass media? Would a mailing or
c. Would a press conference reach the intended audiences, or would it
bypass those who have a specific interest in this crisis?
d. Could you communicate with interested individuals in one day, or would
a crisis communication program take several days or longer?
e. Do you have the correct names and addresses of the individuals who are
vital to implementing this plan?
f. Can you make any judgments about the demographic composition of
1. Effective crisis communication requires a specific goal for each audience.
2. Not only is the goal necessary for shaping the content of the communication,
it is necessary for evaluating the effectiveness of the communication.
3. Barton recommends a series of questions that can help establish goals:
a. Do you know what you want to say, or are you merely communicating
because it seems like the right thing to do? Will your communication help
bring the crisis closer to closure, or could it complicate the problem?
b. How can you prevent misunderstandings? Should you merely clarify
c. Is someone spreading misinformation about your organization? How can
you counter this?
d. Is your communication goal to calm people, or is it to alert them to
potential harm? Should you even attempt to soothe the public if there is a
distinct possibility that further damage, deaths, or injuries could still
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e. Do you seek to delay public scrutiny of your organization, or do you
welcome inspections and tours at this time?
1. The construction of a message (one-way delivery), which targets a specific
audience to accomplish a specific goal should include consideration of the
2. As discussed in the earlier session on risk communication, effective
communication (which takes into account the audience’s concerns and
perceptions) generally involves a mutual exchange of information (two-way
exchange). Therefore, if at all possible, crisis communication should not be
limited to merely delivering a message.
1. The spokesperson (crisis communicator) should be chosen with the target
audience and specific goals in mind.
2. The development of the message and choice of a spokesperson should include
consideration of the following points:
a. Will your message be brief, or does the complexity of the crisis require a
carefully composed and organized, detailed message?
b. Should the message be delivered in person or by way of teleconference or
other channel? What assumptions will people make about your
organization given the channel you select?
c. Should the crisis invite further dialogue (two-way exchange) between the
parties? Should the message have a tone that indicates that the crisis has
been or is about to be solved, thus discouraging further communication?
Possible Discussion Question:
Do you agree with the above suggestion that there are situations where further
communication should be discouraged?
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E. Support and Information.
1. We have discussed information support necessary for the crisis management
team in an earlier session.
1. As the crisis progresses and eventually winds down and ends, an evaluation
of the entire crisis response, including crisis communication, should be
conducted and documented (become part of the organizational memory).
2. Barton recommends a series of questions that should be part of the
a. How did people learn of your problem?
b. How effective was your response?
c. Did you convey the correct series of messages?
d. Whom did you offend, isolate, or fail to reach?
e. If you were frequently asked to correct mistakes or provide
amplification, why was this the case?
f. Which messages were most effective in mitigating the problem? and
which were least successful?
g. How can you maintain an on-going dialogue with especially important
3. The last question above is particularly important. Before another crisis occurs
is the time to build equity with relevant audiences through two-way
communication and demonstrated commitment to safety, public concerns, and
protection of the environment.
Objective 21.3: Explain the role of the media in crisis communication, and considerations
for effectively dealing with the media and the public during a crisis.
Present the material by means of lecture and discussion as necessary.
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I. Role of the media.
A. “With rare exception, the media are the most important constituency in a crisis
because they frame it and they judge it. They declare guilt or innocence. A single
story can exonerate a company or inflict permanent damage.3”
1. Local, national and international television news programming has
proliferated over the last decade, making it more and more likely that even
minor crises will receive some level of television coverage.
2. Crisis communicators must be ready with their initial comment/statement of
the facts as known immediately following the crisis event, or run the danger
of having the television reporter find someone who is willing to tell the story
from his/her perspective (possibly unfavorable) or even make speculations
about the situation based on incomplete information and personal opinion.
1. Newspapers present a special problem since they “are more and more
becoming analytic organs, spending less time on who, what, when, where, and
why, and more time on investigative pieces.4”
2. As a crisis unfolds, there should be a level of expectation that the newspaper
coverage will go beyond reporting the breaking facts and will “investigate
the company history, trying to find footprints that shed light on why the crisis
happened. They aren’t searching for evidence that clears you of wrong doing
a. Companies should therefore have a thoroughly researched corporate
history approved and readily available.
b. Based upon the risk assessment function and risk management strategies,
the history should attempt to emphasize the positives (based on factual
information) to bolster the company’s good will and to establish control
over the communication process (e.g., the company has never been cited
for environmental infractions, the company has spent $XXX on
earthquake mitigation projects, the company has an active employee
assistance program, etc).
D. “There is a generic news coverage formula for corporate crises, particularly those
involving the environment or damage to other parties6” that should be considered in
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dealing with the media – “Event (i.e., corporate greed, selfishness, and/or
irresponsibility) + Victim’s First-Person Accounts + Third-Party Critics =
Conclusions” (Power Point slide 20 - 3).
1. This formula is used time and time again by the media.
2. Crises are viewed as arising from corporate and individuals’ deficiencies
such as greed, irresponsibility, incompetence, disregard for the public, etc.
3. Those victimized by the “corporation deficiencies” are allowed to tell their
own personal stories, which provide the human interest spin on the coverage.
4. Outside “experts (including politicians),” who often have little knowledge of
the actual situation and facts, provide their perspective (generally negative
towards the corporation).
5. Taken together, this combination of opinions (possibly preconceived) and
partial information (possibly biased or slanted to make a better story) allows the
media to reach conclusions about the situation and communicate these
conclusions as news.
E. What the organization must do to counter this formula and grasp control of the
1. The starting point is the event. The organization must be ready to present the
event in a factual manner along with an understanding of its history and any
information that will help in presenting the event in the most appropriate
2. If it is known, the organization should clearly state the extent of the crisis,
what it is doing to control the crisis, and what it plans to do to resolve the
3. Proper concern and compassion should be shown to victims. It is not
necessary and is generally imprudent to admit guilt until the facts are known,
but it is prudent to express sincere concern and compassion for victims who
have been injured and/or experienced personal losses.
4. Defenders of the organization, drawn from the field of “experts” and
credible members of the community, should be identified and made available
to the media.
II. Monitoring communications.
A. A good crisis communication plan does not necessarily end with message
delivery and dialogue with the media.
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B. “Good crisis communications plans support a media monitoring program, and
public relations professionals go to great lengths to ensure that what the media
reports is correct. However, monitors should also audit what is being said to
ensure that the public is being told the details they need to know.7”
C. Debra Traveso’s 1992 article, “Opening a Credible Dialogue with Your
Community,” provides a short case study of the problems encountered by Dow
Chemical Company following the derailment of a CSX freight train carrying
products to their plant near Midland, Michigan8.
1. Event description: On July 22, 1989, a CSX freight train carrying products to
Dow Chemical and transporting products from six other companies derailed in the
community of Freeland, Michigan, near the Dow plant. A chemical spill and
resulting fire required the evacuation of a 25-square-mile area, affecting
approximately 1,000 people. Many of the residents could not return to their
houses for up to a week.
2. Dow had done its planning and immediately responded by assisting CSX and
local authorities in establishing an EOC and media center in Freeland.
a. The Dow plan had been regularly exercised and revised.
b. Dow assigned trained personnel to respond to inquiries, compiled media
phone lists, developed a communication network with the media and local
authorities, and employed trained spokespersons.
3. Even with this planning and preparation, Dow was surprised by the affected
citizens’ reaction to the situation.
a. Five days after the derailment, a local citizen forum was established and
met without inviting the media or Dow and CSX.
b. The next day, the forum met again, and again excluded the media but did
invite Dow representatives. At this meeting they expressed their
frustration that they were not receiving the information they needed to
know, such as how long the clean-up would last, when they would be
allowed back into their homes, and what the long-term environmental and
health impacts would be.
c. R. Matt Davis, Dow’s manager of news and media relations reported,
“During the meeting they said they weren’t blaming us, but they felt they
weren’t getting the complete story from the media.9”
d. From the citizens’ perspective, the media was continually rehashing the
incident and was not reporting what was being done. Instead of
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communicating the information citizens needed, the media was focusing
on how the incident had happened.
e. According to R. Matt Davis, “I attended the press briefings and that
information (what was being done and the impact) was being given out,
but that’s not the information that the people outside the immediate area
wanted to read, so instead, the media reported the bigger story, the more
4. What Dow learned from this was that “informing and updating the media and
responding to their needs during an emergency does not necessarily equate to
informing the public and responding to their needs. You can’t assume that
just because something is said during a press briefing or in a press statement
that it will reach the public. Therefore, organizations should go directly to the
public with their information.11” Accordingly, Dow applied this lesson learned
to its crisis management planning by:
a. Setting up a media monitoring program.
(1) Media monitoring goes beyond providing information to the media to
making sure the public receives what it wants and needs to know.
(2) The total message conveyed by the media is not just the content. It
also includes emphasis, tone of voice, and timing in relation to other
news being reported. It is necessary for the company to monitor this
part of the message also, and to attempt corrective measures if the
message is being distorted or slanted.
b. Setting up a telephone hotline staffed by personnel who can get answers
to the public’s questions.
(1) Technology makes it possible to have toll-free numbers immediately
available. Advertise the number by means appropriate to the intended
(2) Properly advertised and implemented, a hotline demonstrates that
the organization cares about the public’s concerns and has nothing to
(3) Telephone responders need to be trained and proficient in customer
relations and appropriate telephone response. They don’t have to
know all the answers but do need to be able to access answers and call
back the original questioner with the answers.
c. Establishing openness and procedures for meeting directly with the
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(1) As is reported in this case, the public in general may want to bypass
the media and go directly to the source for their information.
(2) Dow went as far as selecting two representatives from the
community to attend CMT meetings and to staff the EOC.
d. Opening a dialogue between the organization and its constituents before
and in response to a crisis through:
(1) Establishing community advisory panels. Share plans and ideas with
the community and be ready to consider and discuss their concerns and
advice. Include community leaders on emergency notification lists.
(2) Conduct teachers’ seminars. Educate the public. An ideal starting
point is through the children.
(3) Conduct public meetings. Establish a time, place, and agenda that
minimize the possibility of the meeting degenerating into adversarial
(4) Encourage coffee klatches. Employees are a valuable resource for
conducting public relations and receiving feedback from the
community. Encourage them to take and actively pursue this role in
their neighborhoods and as members of groups they belong to.
(5) Provide tours. After an event, provide a tour of the site to allow the
public to see what has been done to correct the situation. Before a
crisis strikes, build good will by allowing the public to visit facilities
and understand what is going on in their community.
e. In summary, R. Matt Davis states, “I would still be in frequent contact
with the media, but I would set up a community relations process with
some forum to personally communicate with people in the community.12”
Objective 20.4: Explain the concept of strategic ambiguity in crisis communication and its
possible appropriate and inappropriate application to crisis situations.
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Present the material by lecture and discussion as necessary.
I. General considerations.
A. To this point we have stressed the need for open and honest communication in
crisis situations. Various authors and sources support this point as an absolute
1. Twelve Principles of Crisis Leadership – number 5, (Power Point slide 19 –
8): People are usually very forgiving, but they will not tolerate arrogance,
indifference, lying, or gross incompetence.
2. Crisis Communication Goals – number 2, (Power Point slide 19 – 10):
Truthfulness. Unconditional honesty is the only policy.
3. Guidelines for Managing Crisis Communication – number 6, (Power Point slide
19 – 13): Quickly hold a news conference and make disclosures to the media
openly, honestly, and accurately.
B. The following discussion of strategic ambiguity in crisis communication does not
conflict with this general guidance; however, significant research and actual crisis
events have shown that legal considerations and the requirements of multiple
constituencies combine to make equivocal or strategically ambiguous
communications appropriate (at least in the view of the researcher) in certain
II. The use of ambiguous crisis communication.
A. Organizational crises are, by their very nature, very complex events with
competing requirements and priorities.
1. There are direct victims of disasters and crises (and/or surviving family and
friends) who deserve special consideration. For example, the victims of
product tampering, employees whose place of work or homes have been
destroyed in natural or man-made disasters, the population of the area affected
by an oil spill, the passengers of an airline that crashed, etc.
2. Direct victims represent only a portion of the total range of stakeholders,
though. Customers, stockowners, suppliers, creditors, communities, etc., are
affected by crises, also.
a. Some level of ambiguity, either purposely interjected or due to the
uncertainty of the situation, may characterize crisis communications as a
means of satisfying the divergent needs of multiple stakeholders.
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b. A fact of life is that legal concerns can constrain crisis communication in
those cases for which the organization bears some level of responsibility.
Organizational leaders must at least consider the needs of the multiple
stakeholders before making public statements regarding crisis
c. Previously, we have discussed Johnson and Johnson’s handling of the
Tylenol crisis that is generally perceived as a model for effective and
ethical crisis management.
(1) Lisa Tyler, in her 1997 article Liability Means Never Being Able to
Say You’re Sorry, makes the point that the Tylenol case was atypical.
(2) “Rarely are the company’s hands so clean, and rarely is the
corporation so patently a victim.13”
(3) Very early in the crisis, Johnson and Johnson was sure that the
poisoning was caused by product tampering and not by problems
with the product manufacturing, and the company acted
accordingly. “Throughout the crisis, Johnson and Johnson maintained
an open communications policy.”14
(4) Regardless of the cause of the poisonings, Johnson and Johnson did
the right thing by immediately calling for a product recall and
implementing other corrective measures.
Possible Discussion Questions:
Do you think that Johnson and Johnson would have been so open and honest in their crisis
communication if the source of the poisoning had been immediately attributable to the
Do you think Johnson and Johnson would have recovered the Tylenol market share so
completely and quickly if they had not just been a victim but had had some level of
responsibility for the poisonings?
B. Jack in the Box E. Coli food poisoning crisis.
1. In their 1995 article Ambiguous Argument as Advocacy in Organizational
Crisis Communication, Timothy Sellnow and Robert Ulmer use the Jack in
the Box case study to show that ambiguity may provide organizations with a
means for satisfying the divergent needs of their multiple audiences.
2. Case summary (based on Sellnow and Ulmer 199515).
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a. On January 13, 1993, the Seattle, Washington, Children’s Hospital
notified the state health department that it was treating an unusually high
number of E. Coli infections in children.
b. On January 15, 1993, the president of Jack in the Box was notified by the
Health Department that the E. Coli cases were at least partly attributed to
hamburgers prepared at Jack in the Box fast food restaurants; a
corporate research team was dispatched to Seattle on January 17,1993.
c. Within a month, three children had died of the E. Coli infection in
Seattle (one had eaten at Jack in the Box, a second had been infected by
another child who had eaten at Jack in the Box, and a third had been
infected by an unknown source). In all, the E. Coli bacteria infected 400
people in the Washington, Idaho, and Nevada area.
d. By February 7, 1993, Jack in the Box sales had plummeted by 30 to
35%, its stock prices were off by 11%, and the Securities and Exchange
Commission had temporarily suspended trading in the stock. Jack in the
Box was experiencing not just a financial crisis, but a threat to its
e. Lerbinger categorizes this as a “crisis of skewed management values,”
which will be discussed in a subsequent session. This case study focuses
on crisis communication and the strategy followed by Jack in the Box.
3. Jack in the Box crisis communication.
a. Jack in the Box leaders faced a diverse audience composed of consumers,
regulatory agencies, stockholders, and doctors. All demanded information
about the cause of the crisis, about which Jack in the Box had limited
definitive information due to the fact that some, but not all of the E. Coli
cases could be tied to Jack in the Box and the limited number of
restaurants that were apparently sources of the infection.
b. In view of this uncertainty, corporate leadership took the position that
moving too quickly to accept total responsibility would result in
increased consumer aversion and legal consequences that violated
c. Jack in the Box thus simultaneously faced an audience wanting limited
openness (stockholders), and a public wanting as much information as
d. To meet these divergent needs, Jack in the Box interjected a level of
ambiguity into its public declarations.
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(1) Jack in the Box remained vague regarding its acceptance of blame
by arguing that some of the cases of E. Coli infection had developed in
people who had not eaten at Jack in the Box and that hundreds of E.
Coli infection cases happen in Washington each year.
(2) Simultaneously, Jack in the Box announced new cooking guidelines
(corrective measures) to guard against E. Coli while emphasizing that
this was a general, system wide food preparation precaution and not
just a Jack in the Box reaction to the crisis. (Failure to follow cooking
guidelines is the focus of Lerbinger’s classification of the Jack in the
Box crisis as caused by skewed management values).
(3) Jack in the Box steadfastly maintained that it was not the cause of
many of the E. Coli infection cases of which they were suspected.
e. Mindful of potential legal implications, Jack in the Box communicated in
an ambiguous manner while initiating certain “bolstering” actions and
additional actions, aimed at mitigating the impact of the current crisis,
correcting the problem in the future, and improving their public image.
(1) Stocks of suspect hamburger (20,000–28,000 pounds) were
immediately removed from restaurants.
(2) Improved cooking guidelines and methods of testing foods before
cooking were implemented and advertised.
(3) Internal communication policies were audited and problems
(4) Offers were made to pay for the hospital costs of people who had
eaten at their restaurants.
(5) $2 million was pledged to assist victims and another $100,000 was
donated to charity in memory of one of the victims.
4. Case study conclusion.
a. Jack in the Box accomplished the above listed “bolstering,” corrective and
image restoration actions while balancing its crisis communication to
simultaneously meet conflicting stakeholder needs.
b. “This communication strategy, though often ambiguous, undoubtedly
contributed to the company’s slow but consistent economic recovery.16”
5. Overall, Jack in the Box used a communication strategy of strategic
ambiguity to manage its crisis in a responsible manner, mindful of the
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responsibility to victims, stockholders, and the community in general. A
second case study, involving the tobacco industry, provides an example of
strategic ambiguity applied in an “unethical” manner.
C. Tobacco industry nicotine addiction crisis.
1. In a second article by Sellnow and Ulmer, Strategic Ambiguity and the Ethic
of Significant Choice in the Tobacco Industry’s Crisis Communication,
(1997), the use of strategic ambiguity by the tobacco industry is investigated.
2. Case summary [based on Sellnow and Ulmer (1997)17].
a. In 1994, Dr. David Keesler, representing the Federal Drug Administration
(FDA), brought to Congress the findings that nicotine is addictive and the
accusation that the tobacco companies had purposely manipulated or
spiked nicotine levels in cigarettes.
b. Keesler argued his case through the presentation of scientific evidence
and expert testimony and proposed that the FDA be granted jurisdiction
over cigarettes, an action that might eventually lead to the removal of
cigarettes containing nicotine from the open market.
c. Keesler’s accusations and proposal constituted a major crisis that
threatened the very existence of the tobacco industry.
d. The leaders of the seven largest tobacco companies were asked to attend
congressional hearings and were unanimously critical of the FDA’s
findings, employing strategic ambiguity in what this article contends was
an unethical manner to defend the tobacco industry.
3. The tobacco industry’s crisis communication.
a. The tobacco industry leaders introduced ambiguity into the claims of
Keesler and the FDA by challenging the interpretation of existing data and
by focusing their arguments on the minority of smokers who were able
to quit without professional and medical assistance to counter the
b. The tobacco industry clouded the arguments of the addictive nature of
nicotine by stating that it does not cause intoxication and that people have
quit without having to detoxify first. Keesler in no way equated addiction
with intoxication, but the tobacco industry was quick to use the
comparison as an argument to support their position.
c. One of the tobacco executives further obfuscated the issue by making the
imprecise and arguably specious analogy of nicotine addiction to
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addiction to watching TV, playing video games, or overeating. This article
contends that such ambiguity, aimed at misrepresenting scientific research
and confusing the general public, is not of an ethical nature.
d. Central to Keesler and the FDA’s position was the question of why the
tobacco industry had maintained nicotine levels for the past decade while
tar content had been reduced and the technology existed for reducing both.
This question was never directly answered and the tobacco industry,
which instead responded with simplistic and mundane descriptions of
tobacco processing, further avoiding and confusing the real issues.
4. Case study conclusion.
a. The authors of this article realize that “ambiguity is an inherent part of
organizing” and that “Crisis situations pose constraints on communication
that intensify such ambiguity.18”
b. They do not oppose the right of an organization to provide its view of a crisis
situation – even if it emphasizes the interpretation of ambiguous information
in a manner that favors the organization’s position – provided its
presentation is not based on biased and incomplete information intended to
cloud the stakeholders’ understanding of the crisis situation.
c. In the case of Jack in the Box, the article’s authors found the ambiguous
crisis communications of corporate leadership purposeful and ethical (the
word “ethics” was not explicitly used in the Jack in the Box article). In this
case, however, the authors conclude that the ambiguous crisis communication
of the tobacco industry was deceitful and unethical.
5. The “deception” of the tobacco industry continues into 2008 and beyond.
a. The December 16, 2008 edition of the Washington Post includes an article and
an Editorial which can serve as a follow on to the tobacco industry’s
“deceitful and unethical” practices: Court Allows Suit Against
'Light' Cigarette Makers - Companies Face Huge Liabilities Over
Robert Barnes; and Clearing a Legal Haze - The Supreme Court stops Big
Tobacco from blocking lawsuits over deceptive advertising.
b. A quote from the Editorial supports the position that the tobacco industry has
not necessarily learned from its past experiences – “A smoke-and-
mirrors legal approach failed the tobacco companies yesterday in their
latest attempt to shield themselves from private lawsuits. Altria Group,
parent company of cigarette maker Philip Morris USA, had asked the
Supreme Court to halt a Maine lawsuit claiming that the company used
deceptive advertising when marketing its "light" cigarettes. The lawsuit was
20 - 20
brought under a Maine consumer protection law that declared unlawful
any "unfair or deceptive acts or practices in the conduct of any trade or
commerce." The suit alleged that Philip Morris has long known that
smokers of cigarettes marketed as "light" or containing "low tar and nicotine" often
inhaled as much tar and nicotine as smokers of "full-flavored" brands.19”
The concept of strategic ambiguity is obviously subject to debate. From the course author’s
limited research into the area of crisis communication, it appears that there are more scholarly
works supporting the need for absolute openness and honesty in crisis communication than there
are works supporting the utility of strategic ambiguity. There appears, however, to be no
disagreement that crisis communication based on biased and incomplete information and
intended to confuse the issue is unethical. The case study in the next objective – The BurgerMax
Case, concludes and hopefully ties together the course coverage of Crisis Management and Crisis
Communication. Obviously, the BurgerMax case study is partially based on the Jack in the Box
case included in the remarks for objective 20.3.
Objective 20.5: Discuss the BurgerMax Case study in the context of Crisis management
and Crisis Communication.
Present the material by lecture and discussion as necessary. The case study is available on the
www.e911.com Web site. The course author requested permission to include the case study as a
handout for this course, but permission was denied. The author and copyright holder of the case
study, James Lukaszewski, assured the course author that the case study will remain available for
use on the web site.
I. The case study is presented with the stated purpose to: “draw together the kinds of
behaviors and approaches that staff advisors and the afflicted leadership of organizations
them against the kinds of behaviors, decisions and attitudes that the public, and especially
the victims, expect.20”
II. The case study describes the following seven management behaviors that solid crisis
management strategies and plans must guard against21. (Power Point slide 20 – 4)
B. Victim confusion.
20 - 21
E. Search for the guilty.
F. Fear of the Media.
G. Management by whining around.
III. The case study goes on to contrast community versus corporate priorities and the
necessity to meet the community’s priorities in a crisis situation to preserve the
company’s reputation, ability to operate, and perhaps even its very survival.
A. The case study defines a community’s values as: A community value is a
personal protective belief. It is about something that cannot be changes
without the participation and permission of the community or the
individuals directly involved.22” (Power Point slide 20 – 5)
B. The case study also lays out the following seven community priorities (from
highest down), proposes that corporate priorities are the exact opposite
and that the corporation must adapt to the community priorities to
successful manage a crisis. (Power Point slide 20 – 6)
1. Health and safety.
2. Natural environment.
3. Social environment.
4. Cultural environment.
5. Technical considerations.
6. Financial considerations.
7. Economic considerations.
Possible Discussion Questions:
Do you agree with the general characterization of this case study that community and
corporate priorities are diametrically opposed?
Should a for profit organization change its priorities and place financial and economic
considerations below other community priorities?
IV. The case study goes on to lay out the following five dimensions of crisis response using
the BurgerMax case as the example scenario. Mr. Lukaszewski contends that each of
20 - 22
five dimensions require affirmative management decision making as part of the process
for effectively managing the crisis.23 ((Power Point slide 20 – 7)
A. The operations dimension.
B. the victim dimension.
C. The trust and credibility dimension.
D. The behavior dimension.
E. The ethical dimension.
The BurgerMax case is available on the Lukaszewski www.e911.com Web site ands is assigned
as student reading for this session. The details of the case study and the accompanying details are
not included in the session remarks since they are readily available in the case study.
20 - 23
Mallozzi, Cos. 1994. Facing the Danger Zone in Crisis Communications. Risk Management [on-line]. Vol. 41, No. 1. p. 1.
Barton, Laurence. 1993. Crisis in Organizations: Managing and Communicating in the Heat of Chaos. Cincinnati, OH:
South-Western Publishing Co. pp. 123 – 128.
Taylor, Bob. 1996. Crisis! Business and Economic Review [on-line]. Vol. 43, No. 1. Columbia, SC: University of South
Carolina. p. 12.
Ibid. p. 15.
Ibid. p. 15.
Ibid p. 15.
Traverso, Debra K. 1992. Opening a Credible Dialogue with Your Community. The Public Relations Journal. Vol. 48, No.
8. p. 32.
Ibid. pp. 32 – 35.
Ibid. p. 34.
Ibid p. 34.
Ibid. p. 32.
Ibid. p. 34.
Tyler, Lisa. 1997. Liability Means Never Being Able to Say You’re Sorry. Management Communication Quarterly [on-
line]. Vol. 11, No. 1. p. 51.
Lerbinger, Otto. 1997. The Crisis Manager – Facing Risk and Responsibility. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Earlbaum
Associates. Page 150.
Sellnow, T.L., and Ulmer, R.R. 1995. “Ambiguous Argument as Advocacy in Organizational Crisis Communication.”
Argumentation and Advocacy. pp.138 – 147.
Ibid. p. 147.
Sellnow, T.L., and Ulmer, R.R. 1997. Strategic Ambiguity and the Ethic of Significant Choice in the Tobacco Industry’s
Crisis Communication. Communication Studies [on-line]. Vol. 48. pp. 215 – 232.
Ibid. p. 229.
Washington Post Editorial. Clearing a Legal Haze - The Supreme Court stops Big Tobacco from blocking lawsuits over
deceptive advertising. Washington Post. December 16, 2008. p. A – 18.
Lukaszewski, James. The Burger Max Case.(2009). Retrieved March 10, 2009 at:
http://www.e911.com/articles/BurgerMax_Case_Study,_01-06-09,_Print_Only.pdf p. 1.
Ibid. pp. 3 and 4.
Ibid. p. 4.
Ibid. p. 6 – 19.